The shadow behind the rainbow. Santa Cruz to Sucre, Bolivia.

19 Mar

It’s the witching hour when we finally arrive at our hostel, Jodanga Backpackers, in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Grabbing a short nap gives us the morning to book a flight to Sucre for AU$40 each. I am hesitant, wondering how this can possibly be enough to cover a plane engineer’s wage, but a 15-20 hour ride on a bus without bathroom was too scary to contemplate…

We lap up the last few rays in the sun, swimming in the pool and enjoying long hot showers – if the traveller feedback is anything to go by, this will be the last of the aforementioned for much time. En route to the airport, Bolivian resourcefulness is apparent. Enter Exhibit A. Right-hand drive vehicle, now has its steering wheel and pedals on the left. Gearbox, speedometer and other vehicle dashboard indicators? Fully original.

Sucre, a UNESCO Cultural Heritage site, is a stunning city, rich in colour. From the flowery plazas, to the decorative archways of its colonial buildings, to the abundance of fruit and veg vendors in the central market, it is a rainbow against whitewashed, elegant patioed houses and noble churches. The streets are filled with brightly coloured indigenous families, campesinos speaking Quechua or Aymara (their first language), women with everything from groceries to coca to babies wrapped in an ahuayo (a rectangle cloth with colourful horizontal bands) slung onto their backs.

But alas, it is not long before I notice a shadow behind the rainbow. Travellers visiting this country forever remark about its incredible affordability. A first-class private hostel room for US$6, 3 course lunch for $3, 1L bottle of beer $1… While marvellous for a backpacker, this is sadly also a reflection of the alarmingly low standard of living for most Bolivians – substandard housing, nutrition, education, sanitation, hygiene. In particular, illiteracy and infant mortality rates are markedly higher than their South American counterparts.

Standing in the hustle-and-bustle of the central market, pondering which stall to try the chairo soup for lunch, a tiny, thin hand reaches up to me. I look down into a face ancient with life’s elements, eyes telling me a desperate story. A back too hunched, a neck too craned. I press 5 Bolivianos (80 cents) into this cold hand. She holds the coin up, peering into the light. Suddenly, her eyes brighten. She shakes her fist with glee, and ambles to a nearby stall purchasing the cheapest item going – chicken and rice – with her new coin. She holds the small bowl up to me, fervently bowing her head, her thanks hanging in the air. I watch as she sits in a corner, eating ferociously, utterly ignored by the world. As tears dot my eyes, I realise this is the other face of Bolivia. More than 64% of Bolivians earnings are below the poverty line. The average annual wage is a mere US$900…

When I pull myself together, we spend the next few hours purchasing fresh cheese, jamon, fruits, vegetables and nuts from the vendors, as I dart around giving to as many of the needy as I can. It is not much, but I feel a little better.

We take an afternoon stroll to the city’s cemetery. The gardens are tall, leafy and clean. It is a peaceful place, the serenity only halted by MC’s likening of the resting places to microwaves…

The following morning begins with a bout of excitement. After months of breakfasts with mostly bread, a splash of fruit, and the occasional slice of ham and cheese, MC is making us omelettes filled with yesterday’s market purchases. It puts a spring in our steps as we coast the city streets. We’re not the only ones dancing, however. It is the Festival of Pujllay and the town has turned to the streets to celebrate, complete with swinging skirted dancers and tuba blasting bands.

After a quick nip back to central market for lunch and more supplies, we stop into Casa de la Libertad for a dose of Bolivar and thus Bolivian history, then stroll through artisan stalls in the park, trying on llama hats and buying another fridge magnet. As the sun starts to set, we trek up to Museo de la Recoleta, stopping for wine as we take in the spectacular city views. MC is, as always, ready to chat to all and he makes a few new friends.

A friendly kitty…

And traditional Quechuan musicians – Pedro Snr, Jesus (aged 21), Pedro Jnr (14) and cheeky Diego (9)…

We chat for so long in our pigeon Spanish (not their first language either) that night has fallen and we ask if they want to join us for dinner. We stroll down long winding streets to a hole in the wall eatery with the very best in plastic tables and chairs. We all order the night’s special – steak with salad, rice and potatoes. We all order drinks. The entire meal totals $25. The food is delicious, the company is kind. There is much laughter, much scanning of the English-Spanish dictionary, much dribbling of beer to Pachamama, many learnings. It is a really funny, humbling, happy experience.

Our final day is a Sunday and we take a trip out to Tarabuco, home of the famous Sunday artisanal market. This Sunday is extra-special, as Evo Morales, Bolivia’s current president (and the first indigenous) is visiting as part of Pujllay. While we await his arrival, we tout the stalls. It’s plenty touristy, so we pass the time drinking coffee and sampling Bolivian food. Humitas – cornmeal pastries filled with cheese and veg – don’t blow our hair back, but we discover a real winner… pork, being roasted in large trays and carted around in wheelbarrows by the local women. It seems people usually buy portions to take home for the evening’s dinner. Not MC. He buys his slab and strolls the streets, chomping on his loin, juices dribbling down chin and wrist, with locals laughing at this bearded Neanderthal.

The president comes. Interestingly, we spot no security – no men in suits wearing dark shades, no armed vehicles. He sits there like the principal at a school assembly, watching and applauding the traditional dancers with their colourful flags and their tambourine-like shoes.

The following morning, after scoffing another omelette, we take a cab to Potosi. It is 3 hrs away. The taxi costs $10. Unbelievable.

Beautiful, historical Sucre, our first experience of Bolivia is charming and I can understand why many people stay longer than they expect. But it troubles me too. There are too many outstretched hands, too many hungry eyes. And sadly, I have a heavy feeling this will not be the last glimpse of the shadow behind the rainbow.

x kel

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One Response to “The shadow behind the rainbow. Santa Cruz to Sucre, Bolivia.”

  1. Craig April 5, 2012 at 9:59 pm #

    Good on you sis for being so Charitable. Nonna would be very proud of your humanitarian efforts.

    On a side note, you couldn’t have kept 80 cents and bout MC a razor? 😛

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